MPhil in World History

people visiting the Departures exhibition

Visit to the Departures exhibition organised by The Barakat Trust and Asia House


World History at the University of Cambridge combines the study of global and imperial history with the study of Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories. It draws upon the expertise of faculty members in each of these areas, as well as in Middle Eastern, Oceanic and American history. The MPhil in World History enables students to develop strong expertise in this rich and expanding field of historical scholarship.

The MPhil in World History combines courses and a dissertation over a 9-month program. The core course focuses on historiographical debates in world history, leading to two options, usually in the history of a world region. From the first term, students also begin directed research for a 15,000 word dissertation, working closely with their supervisor from the Faculty’s World History Subject Group. Students will also take language classes, a component that is required but not examined. This may be in any language offered by the Cambridge University Language Centre, and may be elementary, continuing or advanced. In this way, the MPhil in World History offers students thorough preparation for an advanced research degree that will be highly valued in institutions across the world.

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000-4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in World History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

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Aims of the Course

The MPhil in World History aims to:

  • Explore why world history is one of the fastest growing fields of research in current historiography, and how post-colonialism, trans-nationalism and their revisions have driven this burgeoning literature;
  • Train students in the use of the printed, manuscript, visual and oral sources for the study of world history, and introduce the use of sources, within and beyond the colonial and national archives;
  • Offer an intensive introduction to research methodologies and skills useful for the study of world history, including language skills;
  • Introduce new regions, perspectives, connectivities and ruptures in historical processes in their widest extent, and in local, continental or oceanic settings; and
  • Provide an opportunity for students to undertake, at postgraduate level, a piece of original historical research in world history under close supervision: to write a substantial piece of history in the form of a dissertation with full scholarly apparatus.

By the end of the programme, students will have:

  • Knowledge of key debates and trends in world history and historiography;
  • Skills in presenting work in both oral and written form; and
  • Acquired the ability to situate their own research findings within the context of previous and current interpretative scholarly debates in the field.

The Course

Core Course: Debates in World History

Under what circumstances did the scholarly field of world history emerge? How do its concerns overlap with, and differ from, those of global and imperial history, area studies, and post-colonial studies? This core course for the MPhil in World History provides an overview of key historiographical debates, through close reading of significant interventions in the secondary literature. It is taught through a series of eight two-hour discussion seminars, in which students will participate actively. The course will be run jointly, and members of the World History group will take specific sessions on fields in which they specialise.

Topics for 2020-21

  • Imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism 
  • Gender and world history
  • Global intellectual history
  • Economic history and world history
  • Race and racism in world history
  • Local and global approaches to religion
  • Deep history and environmental history

Option courses for 2020-21

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were witness to a proliferation of various forms of print and writing across the world, produced for eager, locally grown audiences. All sorts of texts, including serialised novels, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, local histories, self-help booklets as well as creative and popular literature, became available for public consumption. Taking these printed and written sources as its starting point, this MPhil option course focuses mainly on African case studies, but also draws on comparative examples from the Arab world, India, and the United States. Offering a cultural history of colonialism and modernity, the course examines not only the creation of new print genres, but also investigates how these genres made possible new kinds of political and social community. Through the lens of print cultures, we address a number of key themes in world history, including power, nationalism, ethnicity, gender and consumption. Each weekly topic showcases different case studies, allowing us to analyse the innovative vocabularies and textual forms that readers and editors constructed through their engagement with literacy and print. Significantly, this engagement was not only focused within and across local communities, it also occasionally reached out to transnational and global networks. To this end, we consider print cultures in a comparative global framework and critically analyse the usefulness of concepts such as the ‘public sphere’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’.

This graduate seminar course will provide an historical and contemporary exploration of the lives of working-classes and the urban poor in the Global South and through these histories, insights into the nature of capitalism in these regions. 

What is now referred to as the Global South, i.e., Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, were territories that witnessed the unfolding of capitalist social relations as part of the history of their political subjection and economic exploitation under the expanding orbit of the world capitalist system. Not only did formal colonial rule and informal empires engender substantive transformations in political institutions and social structures of these regions, they also created new regimes of labour in agrarian fields, plantations, mines, factories, military labour markets, households, artisanal workshops and brothels. 

The lives of labouring women and men were ostensibly brought into an era of capitalist wage labour. Yet this seldom turned out to be the harbinger of a radical break with the past. The uneven unfolding of capitalist social relations across different regions of the Global South revealed a complex terrain where the ideal type of ‘free wage labour’ was perennially interrupted in its course of breaking with forms of pre-capitalist unfreedoms. Often, the very language of wage labour wove in its folds the reinvention of forms of labour control. In this course, we explore a vast spectrum of forms of work and understand the multiple trajectories that the transition towards wage labour has taken. 

This course also contributes to the ongoing efforts at decolonizing the curriculum by approaching larger processes such as capitalism, patriarchy, race, and the modern state, through the experiences of the labouring classes of most of the world. 

There will be eight seminars of two hours each. The first hour will include lectures from the convenors and invited faculty members. The second hour will be a discussion with the class on the readings set for the week. 

1. Labour history in the Global South 

2. Slavery, Indenture and Wage Labour: Plantations and Factories in the Colonial World 

3. Artisans in Colonial Capitalism 

4. Domestic Labour and the Household in Capitalist Development 

5. Military Labour Markets and State-building 

6. Sex work and Imperial Power: Race, Sexuality and Violence 

7. Resistance: Labour Protests and Labour Movements in the Third World 

8. The Future of Work: Informalisation and the Precariat in Contemporary Capitalism 

Home MPhil: Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

This option is a combined third-year undergraduate and postgraduate level course that runs for two terms (16 weeks). History MPhil students can choose to audit the Lent Term part of the option if they wish. 

This course concentrates on thematic and policy issues relevant to understanding Japan, the Korean peninsula, China (broadly defined), and also Southeast Asia, as well as the role of the United States in East Asia. The course runs over two terms and draws explicitly on historical research and social science methodology in addressing how best to conceptualize ‘East Asia’ as a region. Topics addressed will vary from year to year, depending on the research interests of the teaching officers involved, but an indicative list of subjects covered in the course would include some, but not necessarily all of the following issues: the Cold War as a historical phenomenon; conflict and war in East Asia and contemporary security challenges; comparative models of economic development in East Asia and the role of ‘plan-rational’ policy-making; the role of the nation-state and competing models of historical identity; multilateralism, the emergence of trans-national actors and economic integration in East Asia; political legitimacy, contrasting models of authoritarian rule, and democratization as a political movement; demographic change; energy and environmental policy and technological change. 

Home MPhil: Divinity

The primary focus of this option is on the renegotiation of African and Christian identities in the past two centuries, from early encounters between missionaries and African societies along the encroaching colonial frontier to African independency movements, decolonisation, the role of African Christianity in the Cold War, and finally the rise of Pentecostalism. A special interest of the module will be in enabling students to de-centre European agency and study how African politics, social change and cultural heritage were mobilised in the Africanisation of Christianity. Main themes for this analysis will be: 1) the interplay of missionary, European, and African politics in the colonial remaking of Africa; 2) the place of conversion as a nexus for negotiating the demands of European modernity with changing African social structures; 3) the role of science and translation in the vernacularisation of Christian cosmology; 4) the transformation of African traditional religions through Christian contextualisation movements. 

An understanding of the historical formation of empires and their impact on the present is crucial to our comprehension of the contemporary world. In this course we shall examine a number of imperial formations, selected from around the world, with particular attention given to empires with broad regional and temporal spans. Comparisons will be drawn between different kinds of empires, their emergence, transformation, and demise. Political, intellectual, social and cultural perspectives on empire help to define the questions we shall formulate and address. 

This course draws on the exceptional range and depth of expertise in the Cambridge World History Subject Group. After an introductory session on conceptual definitions of empire, the course proceeds on a weekly basis with presentations by experts in their fields. These classes may include a focus on the Portuguese and Spanish empires as early modern European maritime formations; an examinations of the land-based Ottoman and Russian empires; the modern French and British Empires; the colonisation of Africa and Asia after c.1800; African empires, settler colonialism, informal colonialism and company colonialism; contemporary American imperialism and China overseas. The course will thus offer students a means to understand rival and connected empires in comparative perspective. Analytical and conceptual problems are highlighted throughout. Students are encouraged to enter into debate with expert tutors; in this manner you will help to shape our collective exploration and understanding of the rich materials and complex problems and themes that constitute the subject matter of this course. 

The initial site of European overseas colonization, and the earliest destination for Africans in the transatlantic slave trade, the Caribbean region was the central nexus for the emergence of the modern world capitalist market. As the earliest point of contact in the ‘Columbian exchange’ of crops, peoples, diseases, and animal species, the birthplace of the Atlantic sugar plantation complex, and the so-called ‘cockpit’ of strategic conflict between European powers, the Caribbean is a natural point of focus for scholars of political economy, race, colonialism, ecology, and culture. This course traces the strategic global conflicts and key economic processes that have tied the Caribbean region to Western Europe, West Africa, and North America. Beginning with Spanish conquest and European inter-imperial conflict, this course covers the Haitian Revolution by which the initial site of European colonization gave rise to history’s first postcolonial nation. The course goes on to cover the emergence of U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean basin, the development of Caribbean nationalism, the Cuban Revolution, and the rise of neoliberalism. From Cuba’s Castroist dictatorship, to Haiti’s neoliberal ‘failed-state’, to the colonial holdovers of Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe and Martinique, Caribbean societies have followed very different trajectories notwithstanding their shared histories of colonization, slavery and sugar. 

Home MPhil: Modern South Asian Studies (Centre for South Asian Studies)

Portrayed as a ‘native’ religious fanaticism necessitating the arbiter of Empire, an Orientalist trope, or as a statistical conflict between ‘religious’ communities: ‘religion’ has been part of the toolbox of colonialism in South Asia. The aim of this course is not to reproduce the fallacy of naturalising religion and essentialising South Asia as uniquely religious. Neither will it defer religion to only a superstructure. Instead, this course will neither treat ‘religion(s)’ as a separate, transcendent realm nor as a category sui generis, but as part of the social, political, historical and intellectual fabric of the subcontinent. Easy slippage into conceptually proximate concepts like ‘communalism’ and ‘nationalism’ should not be allowed to explain away that religion – variously imagined – was essential in the transformation the subcontinent into modern nation-states and the enduring problems that are its legacies. Religious symbols, idioms and practices were the fountain into which all anti-colonial projects in the subcontinent dipped. In employing religion in this way, the various anti-colonial projects (from liberal to revolutionary, Hindu and Muslim, to Sikh, and indeed Dalit) fundamentally redefined the content and practices of historical religions that they tended to present as authentic traditions. This course is designed to familiarise students with a new perspective on South Asian history, which builds on, and complements, the perspectives and historiographies of the core course and the other option courses. Gender will be an integral analytical frame in all sessions. Students will leave the course with a good understanding of modern developments in South Asian religious history, particularly those that had a strong bearing on the anti-colonial movement and the development of separate Hindu and Muslim nationalisms. For students wishing to pursue a PhD on any aspect of religion in colonial or postcolonial South Asia, this course will provide both the historical framework and the conceptual tools to do so. 

Home MPhil: Modern South Asian Studies (Centre for South Asian Studies)

This course explores the possibilities of using translation – between languages, cultures, cosmologies, genres, media, senses, and spheres of exchange – as an analytic through which to investigate a variety of issues in the study of South Asian society and culture. Though our main disciplinary lens will be anthropology, our discussions will draw on insights from neighbouring fields (e.g. history, literature, religion). Attending to multiple modes and moments of translation – and mistranslation – that might facilitate or frustrate social, political, and ethical life across South Asia, our discussions will be organised around a set of encounters across different kinds of difference. We begin by grounding our thinking in discussions of literature, before turning our attention to religion, then media and consumption, and finally to economy and politics broadly defined. We conclude by reflecting on the role of translation in the construction of ‘South Asia’ as an object of study. 

There are five components to the MPhil in World History:

  1. core course
  2. first option
  3. second option
  4. dissertation
  5. language

Core Course

  • Debates in World History (weekly seminar x 8 weeks)

Option 1

  • weekly seminar x 8 weeks

Dissertation research and supervision


  • 1 session per week

Applying to the course

To apply to the MPhil in World History, you will need to consult the relevant pages on the Postgraduate Admissions website (click below).

Since applications are considered on a rolling basis, you are strongly advised to apply as early in the cycle as possible.

On the Postgraduate Admissions website, you will find an overview of the course structure and requirements, a funding calculator and a link to the online Applicant Portal. Your application will need to include two academic references, a transcript, a CV/ resume, evidence of competence in English, a personal development questionnaire, two samples of work and a research proposal.

Research proposals are 600–1,000 words in length and should include the following: a simple and descriptive title for the proposed research; a rationale for the research; a brief historiographic context; and an indication of the sources likely to be used. The document should be entitled ‘Statement of Intended Research’. Applicants are encouraged to nominate a preferred supervisor, and are invited to contact members of the Faculty in advance of submitting their application to discuss their project (see our Academic Directory:

Below are some anonymised examples of research proposals, submitted by successful applicants to the MPhil in World History. You may use these to inform the structure of your submission. Please note that they are purely for guidance and not a strict representation of what is required.

World History - Research Proposal 1

World History - Research Proposal 2


Assessment & Dissertation

Part I

Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent). Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%. Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

Students will also prepare a 2,000 word dissertation proposal essay due in the Lent Term. This essay will be unassessed but students will meet with their supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback.

Part II

The Dissertation or Thesis is Part II of the course. Each student on the MPhil will prepare a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words.The thesis will be due in early-June and will count for 70% of the final degree mark.

An oral examination will only be required in cases where one of the marks is a marginal fail.

The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course, worth 70% of the final mark.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.